Dabo brushes off offseason doubts over Clemson

  • ACC reporter.
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2010.
  • Graduate of the University of Florida.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For a team that has made the College Football Playoff six times in the past seven years, Clemson has faced a far bigger share of questions about the state of its program than one might expect this offseason.

Despite its run of success, including its 11th straight 10-win season a year ago, nobody is talking about the Tigers as a playoff shoo-in headed into the season. Instead, there are more questions directed to coach Dabo Swinney about his decision to stay in-house for coordinator hires and what, exactly, the offense will look like after quarterback DJ Uiagalelei struggled throughout 2021.

When asked about it during ACC Kickoff on Wednesday, Swinney said, “If I sit around and listen to all the people that questioned me for the last 14 years and did what everybody thought I should do, I wouldn’t be here. We’re not having this conversation.

“I do what I think is best for Clemson and what I think is best for our team. We’ve always been inside-out driven, and nothing has changed — just more people pay attention. But that’s because we’ve been successful. The one thing I’ve learned at Clemson: We can go win the next three national championships in a row, people are still not going to like me. I can make whatever decision, and they’re going to criticize. That comes with winning. When you’re in a profession like this, there’s really only one fan base that likes you.”

It certainly is a far different narrative than a year ago, when Clemson was the overwhelming choice to repeat as ACC champions and make a seventh straight playoff appearance. Though the Tigers had to replace Trevor Lawrence, Uiagalelei had playing experience headed into the season. But Uiagalelei and the entire offense did not match the preseason expectations, and Clemson was out of the playoff conversation by midseason.

Though the preseason ACC media poll has not been released yet, Clemson might not be the overwhelming choice to win the Atlantic Division in 2022, based on not only what happened a season ago but the overall strength of the division. Everybody returns their starting quarterback in the Atlantic — including last year’s division winner, Wake Forest, and NC State, which heads into the season with higher preseason expectations.

“The narrative may change, but the expectations are high for us every single year,” Swinney said. “But what this team has is a healthy perspective. Because you can win so much for so long, sometimes you can lose your appreciation for winning and your appreciation for what it takes to win and how hard it is.”

Defensive end K.J. Henry compared the doubts about the program to the doubts Clemson used to get about its strength of schedule when it was a perennial playoff team.

“It’s never going to be in our favor. We will win 10 in a row. It won’t matter. It’s always too easy,” he said. “And then we lose and people say, ‘What’s going on? They’re horrible.’ We’re never looking to have everybody agree with us. But we know we have to prepare every week, which we’ve done for a very long time now. So I think the adversity we faced last year was a big testament to the type of program Coach Swinney has.”

As for Uiagalelei, he has dropped 25 pounds, and Swinney praised the work his quarterback did to make improvements headed into fall camp.

“I don’t need anybody on a message board to tell me who DJ is,” Swinney said. “Just ask [former athletic director] Terry Don Phillips. I won six games my second year as the head coach. There was a lot of people on the message boards wanting me gone. Then next year, we won the ACC for the first time in 20 years. We won 10 games for the first time in 20 years. Now, we win 10 games and they want to fire me.

“Terry Don Phillips had a lot of confidence in me as a coach. I got a lot of confidence in DJ. He has some scars on him. That’s going to serve him well as he goes into this year.”

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